Science fiction is in as solid of an iceberg as it ever has – while chunks have been drifting, falling, floating away as they ever do, not since the ’80s has the genre had so much significance to pop culture as it does now. While certainly not stepping into the spotlight as sure-footed as we may hope, the puppet strings are being tugged ever so slightly more and more in the right direction for those so inclined to the stories they hold. “The Signal”, while far from radiating the limelight of the summer, is still a worthy foe to stand its own alongside a whole season of heavy hitting films, and one of the few original stories to be told among them.
“The Signal” is a rather polarizing experience, with each act slightly lower in quality than the previous. While never a film that falls through on its promises or sacrificing its principles, the true neglect comes from an ever-increasingly simplified story, starting off with as much intrigue and confusion from the days of “2001”. Act I is a true spiritual work of art – the cinematography is on par with the some the best of the year, and does a strangely superb job of juggling multiple genres in a short amount of time. Beginning with deftly subtle character drama and progressing into, of all things, found footage horror before bursting into act II with bewildering scifi montages and psuedo-political intrigue. The rising conflict is a superb accomplishment of keeping one guessing throughout it. It is an utter treat to see so much effort put into gorgeous visuals and primary character development while keeping the science fiction elements slowly boiling on the back-burner for much of the first half.
While half of the primary cast is also put on that same back-burner for much of the unveiling, the primary conflict between protagonist-and-antagonist is exceptionally brooding and intelligent. There is very little to dislike here – Brenton Thwaites continues to look mildly perplexed during every dramatic moment as he is want to do, but truly it is Beau Knapp that is under-appreciated here, disappearing almost entirely for the middle of the film.
Lawrence Fishburne slips into the skin of a subtly menacing, white-hazmat-suited and clearly left-handed to assist audiences in understanding his role as villain with relative ease Damon. Fishburned must be given special commendation for jumping so readily into a film of such small production significance with the intensity that he does – Damon is as equally villainous a presence as he is questionable of intention. He blends into the atmosphere of the world around him like a chameleon, as part of it as any of the bleak hallways or questionable medical furniture decorating the empty rooms of act II. The white washed walls and strangely decrepit interiors of act II showcase the excellent use of budget here – in fact, it is an astounding testament how well they have concealed what this film cost.
Unfortunately, act III simply does not deliver the level of sublime story craft executed in scenes prior. It seems as though the well of ideas ran dry, and in a desperate attempt to consolidate the few strands left hanging chose to wrap it all up in a clean package that was easier to digest for audiences than what was originally promised. Whole scenes of setup are discarded as moldy leftovers just interesting enough to pass the cutting floor, but not relevant to match up with the overly simplified conclusion. In fact, portions of acts prior become more confusing in the context of what we see at the end. While certainly no enough to ruin the taste of the whole dish, the slightly lingering aftertaste doesn’t go away quite as soon as one would hope.
William Eubank is a member of that group of young white male directors with a shockingly small body of work but with an equally shocking rise in quality and fame more than likely on the verge of being poached by a much larger production company. While not the masterpiece it could have been, “The Signal” is still one of the few truly original works of risk out for the summer – it is just not as risky as it could have been.